Friday, February 29, 2008

Day 37 "In the trenches" (Placeholder edition)

Crazy-busy this weekend (search candidate, out of town gig, conference paper to finish, ceili dance to promote and play), so the blogging regularity may be interrupted. This is by way of being a placeholder. Will to ETA photos/updates later (probably very later!).

Thursday, February 28, 2008

"Them Changes"

Bumped--because Buddy and Aunty Genoa deserve their own post, free and clear of Buckley's patrician bullshit:

Buddy Miles is gone too. Let's just say that the 18:00 minutes of his playing on Hendrix's "Machine Gun" from Band of Gypsies is a more accurate, compassionate, incisive, eloquent, damning, and beautiful indictment of war than any apologia Buckley ever wrote. He was the funkiest drummer Jimi ever had, and, that night at the Fillmore on New Year's Eve 1969, he let Hendrix go places, and go back to places, he never reached again.

Jesus. Aunty Genoa too. I never really knew much about Hawai'ian music, though I had admired 78-collecting friends who really did, and of course I was aware of the music's impact upon Delta blues (via demonstration records of Hawai'ian slide and slack-key guitar included with mail-ordered phonographs in Mississippi and Alabama), but that changed the first time I went to the Islands, for an ethnomusicology conference. That was a weird trip, starting with a horrific flight out of LA (don't ever fly on ATA!) during which I was asked to take charge of the cabin-crew's attempts to subdue a violent passenger (don't ever fly on ATA!) about 45 minutes out over the Pacific (don't ever fly on ATA!) and eventually had to punch the person's lights out (don't ever fly on ATA!).

But the closing banquet's entertainment included Genoa Leilani Keawe and her entire family--about five generations of singers, players, and dancers onstage at the same time, the kids in belly-button jeans and sideways Raiders caps dancing the hula and Aunty Genoa singing and playing guitar. In that place, on that hot, humid evening in October, with the sun going down over the ocean across which the next landfall was Japan, they sounded like angels. Afterwards, I was introduced to her, and it was a privilege to shake her hand.

The heavenly choir just got a lot sweeter, and lot funkier, with Buddy and Aunty Genoa in the band.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Buckley's gone

William F Buckley:

He wasn't cut from the same cloth as the sociopathic war criminals now in power, but he was another of those Yalie Skull-and-Bones ex-spooks (like this guy) who thought that power should be passed down hereditarily in patrician families, and he had the classic arrogance of a quasi-intellectual who, because of his accent and Old School tie, thought he had the right (or even the ability) to lay down the law to all of us irrelevant plebes. He made Ronald Reagan possible, and he provided an intellectual veneer that attempted to legitimize the greed, cynicism, and criminal neglect of the balance of his Grand Old Party. I was brought up in that same goddamned Connecticut/Massachusetts prep-school and Ivy environment with a lot of (potential) access to the same Privilege. He could have walked away from it--he could have become a Jack Kennedy or a John Kenneth Galbraith, or, hell, my own Big Brother, and he didn't: he sat up there with the rest of the goddamned toga'd Senate and dispensed from On High.

A boots-on-the-ground vet versus a chickenhawk

Rick Noriega has served 27 years in the US armed forces, including boots-on-the-ground combat postings. He is running to unseat the Bush-enabler John Cornyn. Cornyn is obviously running scared of this grass-roots campaign, and he's doing what Bush/Rove/Cheney types do when there's a real threat: he is lying, distorting, and attempting to claim that Noriega has misrepresented his combat record. Which, for someone who lives in the kind of Glass House that Cornyn does, takes quite a bit of gall.

Sign the petition which calls Cornyn out for his lies here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Day 34 "In the trenches" (Too Much Monkey Business edition) and, Fuzzy People 28

Too much, too much, it's all too much. With a search, two seminars, two private lessons, a sixteen-minute video podcast, a radio program, a music-appreciation textbook, and a set of lost keys, it's all too, too much. Woke up at 4am, couldn't get back to sleep, started working and didn't stop until about 15 minutes ago. Stress level is off the charts.

But, dammit--I'm just so proud of my guys. 10am was a Master's student who's writing up her fieldwork in Ethiopia, in a beautiful photo-essay set with commentary that's going to break some hearts when it's published. 11am was MUBA student who's learning Irish fiddle--very very fast. 12:30 the African Diaspora seminar--today was Haitian rara and Dominican merengue, and a first introduction to the Trinidad calypsonians. A lot of my guys have heard Arrow's "Hot Hot Hot" (either in a soccer commercial or the David Johansen version), or maybe Belafonte's version of "Jump in the Line" (from Beetlejuice), though I like Sir Lancelot's 1958 original much better. But my very favorite is Attilla the Hun's 1937 "Roosevelt in Trinidad", which I first heard from Martin Grosswendt, who got it from Ry Cooder, who probably got it from Attilla:

When Roosevelt came to the "Land of the Hummingbird"
Shouts of welcome were heard
His visit to the island is bound to be
An epoch in local history
Definitely marking the new era
Between Trinidad and America.
Usually they're in hysterics by the end of the first verse.

Hell of a weekend: bunch of gigs with the Celtic ensemble. I was proud of them:

Photobucket

That's my guys.

Below the jump: morning cloud, and Ian's buddy Hank the Cow-Dog:

Thanks to Chipper for the "Fuzzy People" appellation.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Day 33 "In the trenches" (Jump-in-the-line edition)

Hangin' in there. Search candidate here next week (early), off to Savannah for another gathering of another tribe next week (late), kids hurtling toward Spring Break.

Moving into 20th century in the undergraduate history review class: transformations of compositional concerns from 19th century Romanticism (harmony and formal structures) to 20th century Modernism (sound and rhythm), retention of Romantic conceptions of programmaticism and canonic hierarchies, and the various "Isms" around which we organize 20th century concert music: Impressionism, Expressionism, Exoticism, Primitivism, Futurism, Neo-Classicism, Serialism, Total Serialism, Minimalism...

These aesthetic schools, though they might seem a bit esoteric for a bunch of 19-year-olds from Sudan and Earth and Levelland and Shallowater and Plainview and Idalou and other various W Texas towns, in fact resonate very powerfully with their own prior experiences--if only because their data-streams are so multifarious that the kids are remarkably skilful at recognizing consistent aesthetics across these different media. If you identify a kind of "futurist" impulse in Ellington's Daybreak Express (1930), a tone-poem and miniature portrait of a train-trip in the length of a 78, and then unpack the implications of trains, as a symbol of progress, change, and utopian speed, and then unpack still further for the symbolism of trains to African-Americans seeking progress, change, utopia, and--at the very least--a cheap ride out of the Jim Crow South, and then give the kids just a bit of information about Ellington hiring his own special sleeping and eating cars so that his sidemen didn't have to put up with racist bullshit at lunch counters or boarding houses, then just in the course of 6 minutes conversation and 3 minutes of music, you've given them a pretty good sense of the futurist impulse toward utopia, and you've set up a pretty good frame for the sense of horror with which the Western Front (for Europeans) and the Second War (for Americans) destroyed that utopian impulse. And then you can help them find futurism in Fritz Lang, or Le Courbousier, or Frank Lloyd Wright, and they can see it.

Below the jump: sunrise on the South Plains.



Sunday, February 24, 2008

Springtime comin' (placeholder edition)

Coming to the end of another VMC weekend, this time a guest visit by English Country Dance master teacher. Kids did great, during two long 2-hour intensive workshops, and went from "nothin' to somethin'" in the dance style in the course of 1 day. Dance teacher--who confessed to an early skepticism about whether they could do it--was very impressed.

One of the great things about the Texas kids is how remarkably un-self-conscious they are, at least as far as dance goes. Coming from my own cultural background (uptight middle-class suburban New Englander), having taught in the either uptight-or-entitled-or-both Mid-West, it's remarkably refreshing to be here, to stick sixteen kids in a room with a dance teacher, and to see the abandon with which they throw themselves into it. Their engagement is enhanced by the degree of prep and general esprit de corps we have created--the general attitude within the ensemble that we're not afraid to try new things, and that in fact new things can provide positive new experiences--but it's also the plus side to the general un-self-consciousness that West Texans feel about almost anything.

I still remember the time that Dharmonia and I were stuck overnight in the Dallas airport, and the exchange, next morning, while waiting to board the first shuttle out, with a young mother and sleepy kid, who had obviously been stuck as well:

Young Mother: Boy, I shure hope we kin git on this here airplane. I'm tahred.
Dharmonia: Yes, it sure was a long night, wasn't it?
YM: Yeah, it shure was. An' my incision's started leakin'.
Coyotebanjo: Oh?...Uh, well, ours are just fine, thanks.
Nonplussed doesn't begin to describe it ("Y'all have any kids"? "Uh, no." "Wha not?!?"). Mostly, West Texans aren't self-conscious about anything: not about conspicuous consumption, or Big Ol' Hair, or the McMansions they live in, or the amount of their salaries, or the specific and excruciating details of their surgeries or sermons. If they're racists, they're unselfconscious about it. If they're materialist, they'll let the world know it. If they're curious about who the hell you are and why you "haven't yit foun' a church home?", they'll just tell you.

But the plus side is that the kids are nearly-equally unselfconscious about trying new things--f'rinstance including dancing. It helps that most of the Celtic Ensemble kids, including the instrumentalists, recognize that if they want to play a dance music properly, they have to learn to dance it properly. Whether it be blues, or Irish set-dance, or salsa, or samba, or English Country Dance, or hip-hop, you can't play it if you can't dance it. And my guys can. And they have the remarkable and wonderful ability to get outside themselves, to not worry about "how they look" or "whether they look goofy", and throw themselves into it.

And the result is something truly wonderful to see. It's like the night we took our first crop of W Texas kids into the set-dances on the top floor of the Old Ground Hotel in Clare during the Ennis fleadh nua. The Tulla Ceili Band was raising the roof with the jigs & reels, and the 50-year-veteran set-dancers were already out on the floor, and our kids were variously delayed in finding their way there.

So the Tulla Band is blasting away, and the whole floor is swaying up and down under the coordinated feet of maybe four hundred dancers, and here come Becky and Esther, two of our step-dancing girls, sprinting across the lobby, ripping off their jackets and hurling them into a corner, and dashing out onto the dance floor.

They danced all night, every figure of every set, learning the Kerry and Clare sets right on the fly, spinning across the dance floor that was lifting right up under their feet. They were fearless. And fearlessness--or, at least, the refusal to let fear rule--is what makes freedom possible.

This is why we do what we do:

Friday, February 22, 2008

Day 32 "In the trenches" (Tally-ho the weekend edition)

Quick hit today: another VMC concert weekend coming up, though this time the guest artist is presenting a couple of masterclasses, rather than a concert. Which makes for equally long hours but a much lower stress level. The only clientele/audience who have to "get their money's worth" are the students in the Celtic Ensemble. Bringing in a dance expert from Houston who comes highly recommended, and who is offering the workshops at a reduction of his usual rate--in exchange for an opportunity to spend a chunk of Sunday birding.

Seriously: hard-core birders move here, or retire here, from around the country, because of the quality of the avian wildlife. When we contacted him, and he quoted us a price, we took the stance that we often take as we try to build something-out-of-nothing, spit-and-bailing-wire way up here in the Great Wide Open: "well, look, X completely reasonable price and we completely understand if you can't help us--but X minus Y per cent is what we can actually afford to pay. If you can't do it, we understand, but if you can, we'll really appreciate it and we'll make sure you have a pleasant time." That's how, over the past seven years, we've built an Irish music scene that now has the reputation for being the best combination of friendly and high-calibre in the whole frickin' state.

And then when they do get here, we try to treat them as well as we possibly can: transport, accommodations, meals, support materials, timetables, levels and types of input, student attentiveness, you name it. As a colleague on staff says "up here, we learn how to make our own fun." And, equivalently, we try to make damned sure that our guests providing us a cut-rate have at least as much fun.

The first time Dharmonia's early music presenting organization brought a great theorbo duo here, from New York, we made them feel like rock stars. The theorbo looks roughly like a cross between a lute and a clipper ship's mainmast and rigging: the body is lute-sized and -shaped, but the neck is about 5 feet long, and has a vast collection of outrigger strings. If you stand at the right angle to the breeze with this thing, you'll hear it singing like an Aeolian harp; and if you look at it wrong, the neck gets hurt.

Anyway, these New York guys came into town, and Dharmonia's crew made sure to treat them like royalty: chauffeur them around, house them gently, surprise them with the quality of the restaurants (and the lack of wait for a table), provide faculty colleagues who'll walk in and nail the Caccini arias for the continuo demonstration (and then treat them like respected colleagues rather than kitchen help), get them featured prominently on local radio and local TV, sell a bucket of their CDs at a very well-attended conference, and then deliver them to a small regional airport at which they get ticketed and clear security in about 12 minutes. For guys used to 3 hours wait at La Guardia, and NYC early music audiences 1/4 the size and 1/8 as friendly as our local audience, this was all a shockingly pleasant surprise.

And then, when they were going security with the "Hi, how are y'all?" TSA folks at the airport, one of the staff came up with the ultimate, coincidental motivator: she looked at the guys, and their instruments, and said "Hey, we seen you on the TV!" The guys were so gassed by this that Dan turned around, from behind the security rope, and, just as went through the X-ray scanner, and yelled "Hey, how soon can we come back?!?"

That's the kind of friendly and kind vibe and experience we try to create for our visitors. It's facilitated by the fact that we are, most of us, generally friendly and kind people--I leave Dr Coyote, a notorious Prince of Darkness, out of that equation--and so it's not hard to create that atmosphere. It's also facilitated by the fact that we are, most of us, touring performers ourselves, and so we have some sense of what you want, and don't want, when you're on the road playing music: the biggest peril in touring with niche musics is that you'll be housed, chauffeured, or otherwise "assisted" by volunteers who mean well, but have no such clue. I still remember the time that Dharmonia and I, with our medieval music quartet, arrived at the Houston airport on a day with probably 85 degrees of heat and 90 per cent humidity, with all our instruments, to be greeted by a volunteer with a compact car, who then, when we had laboriously and uncomfortably packed ourselves into her car, insisted that "what [we'd] really enjoy would be a tour of my alma mater", and then drove us around and around the campus of fuckin' Rice University for almost two hours before finally delivering us to our host's home, where we then had to sit and make-nice for two hours more before we could even unpack, shower, or take a nap.

We're a lot more on-the-ball than that, anyway--and if the visiting dance teacher wants to go off Sunday morning, the day after 4 hours of workshops, and drive the back farm-to-market routes looking for these little guys, we're happy to oblige:





http://www.tsuru-bird.net/churchill/longspur_chestnut-collared_m_4a.jpg

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Day 31 "In the trenches" (compromised edition)

There comes a point, if you're operating in an academic bureaucracy, when you have to accept that some days you're going to have to do things--or, more accurately, not do things--in a way other than you want or believe in.

Frickin' inevitable, but no less depressing. But you suck it up, and move on, and recognize that, even in less-than-ideal circumstances, there are always better and worse, more- and less-human choices.

Years ago Dharmonia and I had a good friend and fellow Buddhist who worked in a medical lab, specifically in a section which made use of animal subjects. I don't think that I would have the moral guts to work in such a situation, because the suffering of innocent beings would be too painful for me. But J.W. had those guts--to recognize that, if an animal-subject-employing lab was going to exist, better it should be run by someone who cared about that suffering, rather than someone who was oblivious to it. He stayed in that job for a long time, and endured (witnessed) the suffering that went on there every single fucking hour, and worked at the actual, boring, infinitely-slow incremental processes which could make for real and lasting bureaucratic change, until the day arrived when that particular medical lab completed a transition to using absolutely no live testing subjects. J.W. stuck with that daily witness, that daily suffering, until a day would arrive when that suffering, in that lab, would end. And never, ever, ever resume.

I've got another friend who works, bizarrely enough to those who know me, for Homeland Security. I don't tend to think of her as someone who is going to be believe in Der Leader's moral imperative--particularly because her specific area is disaster-recovery. Which sometimes means picking up bodies. Or parts of bodies. Because, as she says, "better it should be done by someone who feels a little bit of compassion."

That's how change happens. By facing and making the impossible, heartbreaking, tiny little incremental steps by which we can together decrease suffering and increase wisdom. By, as our mutual Buddhist teachers said, "showing up for the impossible."

Even if it breaks your heart.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Day 30 "In the trenches" (aftermath edition)

Aftermath of TMEA and the first undergrad exam grades, that is.

Continuity in our spring semester is tough: it's broken up by tours and the Convention, the kids are more or less sprinting forward at a 45 degree angle counting the days 'til Spring Break (and convinced that anything between Jan 15 and March 12 is basically time-serving, to be resented and avoided), and we're finishing up the fourth (sophomore) semester of the Music History sequence. Both the interruptions and distractions ought to be anticipated and coped-with by us, the teaching staff, and the kids should be able to handle certain skills and tasks (especially the semester-long research project) with little coaching or nagging, compared to earlier iterations.

Neither of these presumptions typically proves out as well as we would like:

We now know, after seven years, both how the Spring schedule can shift around, and the likely calendar-and-concentration impact of those interruptions, and we now know--pretty well--how to anticipate and cope with the inevitable erosion of continuity. But the reality is that, with a 1st and 4th semester of the sequence taught by one professor, and a 2nd and 3rd taught by another, there are bound to be--should be--contrast of presentation, focus, approach, vibe, and, crucially, testing method.

So the first exam in any given semester can be a bit of a shock--hell, a douse of frigid water--for kids who are either accustomed to doing something a certain, other way, or, as we say around here, "have to be re-trained after the coffee break." We administer exam #1 prior to the first big chunk of away dates, just as we make the first major chunk of the research assignment due prior to Spring Break, because we know that their focus, concentration, and ability to get back in the saddle will be terribly deteriorated by those respective interruptions of the normal weekly schedule. By hitting them with those big-chunk assessments before they go, we (a) get a sense of where they're at when their concentration is at its peak, and (b) let them know, before they go, that they're going to have stuff to come back to.

Unfortunately, that stuff they come back to can turn into stuff they have to face up to: the ones who've been coasting too severely (or the real criminals who've just been blowing off coming to class) are almost bound to fail that first exam--and they need to know and to see that failure early, if we're going to have a prayer of pulling them back from the brink; on the other hand, the ones who have been working hard, and attending, and still do poorly on that first exam, need a morale pick-me-up.

Because it's shocking and depressing to have done your best and still scored poorly. We need to find ways to open dialog (mental, if not literal) that lets that latter crew of low-scoring kids know that we believe they can succeed, even in the face of this initial setback. Too often, a kid who has despite honest effort still done badly will be so let-down that s/he will just give up. And we can't let that happen to any kid if there's a prayer s/he could be recovered with a little bit of a psychological pick-me-up and a bit of an academic lifeline.

So today I went into class before they ever arrived, fired up the technology and put up this PPT slide:
I put it up straightaway because I wanted them to be thinking about the exam before I ever started talking. Not because I wanted them to feel guilty or scared, but because I wanted them already to be focusing in on the "oh yeah, I really tanked that exam" or the "damn, I thought I did better than I did." Because it's by getting them to focus that I might stand a prayer of getting the kind of discussion/debriefing that I think they need after the first exam.

The goal here is to be open, honest, and transparent: to tell the ones who haven't been working "look, this is within your power to fix, but you have to start working"; to tell the ones who don't know how to study "look, we will help you learn study skills, but you have to ask for help"; to tell the ones who, with that particular blend of arrogance and naivete in which some undergraduates specialize, don't do any fuckin' work "I can look around this room and know who hasn't been coming to class, and I know that's why those particular individuals failed this exam."

These are not accusations: they are--we hope--a bracing (and ultimately, liberating) dose of realistic straight talk. We are not K-12 teachers and we're not obligated to cushion the blow. Our job is to use every bit of experience, attention, insight, instinct, learned skill, and experimentation to grow these minds. Part of that means telling them the truth--both about their failures and about their successes.

But the other part of the process is to help them realize that they also have to tell the truth: not only to us, about the problems they're having or the bad choices they've made, but even more importantly, to themselves, about those same problems or bad choices. It's a common, human, understandable, and really really ill-advised undergraduate tendency, upon receiving unwelcome or disappointing news, to blot it out: to avoid thinking about it, to quit going to class, to avoid making eye-contact with the professor in the hall in hopes s/he "won't see me" (too many of these kids have no idea how good a large-lecture professor's peripheral vision gets to be), to just generally pretend the problem's not happening, because acknowledging that it is happening, particularly if you're young and don't know how to begin to fix it, is just too scary.

I bitch a lot, in these pages (dating myself, there) about the bad attitudes, misplaced sense of entitlement, passivity, and general emotional immaturity of these kids, and about the fucked-up and arrogant choices they make behind those psychological handicaps. But, really, and when I'm not fuming at the nth iPod-hazed living-in-the-pod big-sunglassed, Uggs-wearing, cell-phone cackling, credit-card waving male or female bimbo in the Student Union, I know that, for my kids in the School of Music, only a small percentage of the bad behavior, staring into the fog, or childish absenteeism really comes from spoiled arrogance (I think the brand-new BMW's or gigantic size-of-a-suburb white GMC behemoths or jacked-up pickups or $500 iPhones argue pretty conclusively for spoiled arrogance in the general undergrad population).

But not the Music School kids. Only a very small percentage are arrogant or spoiled, even if every external behavioral, attitudinal, postural, and conversational behavior would seem to confirm precisely that. Most of the rest are neither.

Mostly, they're scared.

They're scared they can't cut it;

They're scared that other students have expertise or skills they themselves lack;

They're scared that getting into Music School was either a fluke or a bad idea;

They're scared because college--or any college worthy of that distinction--is both categorically, experientially, and intentionally different than high school (a small percentage--those who like me were bored snotless in high-school, rejoice in this difference--but most fear it);

They're scared of the professors, and particularly of those professors (us!) who will actually call on them in class;

They're scared, most of all, deep down in their heart of hearts, no matter how popular they were in high school or how high they could play or how many first-chair assignments they got or how far they could throw a tight spiral or how many guys bought them how many worthless trinkets (or illegal beers)...

...that they're dumb.

They're not dumb, most of them. But it's a pardonable error for them to be afraid that perhaps they might be, because it is the flat fucking truth that they live in a society whose power structure wants them to be dumb--or failing that, at least wants to keep them ignorant. Of course they "don't know stuff" (one of the great lines by the character Wayne Wayne Wayne in Happy, Texas)--mostly, their parents or legislators or motherfucking president doesn't want them to "know stuff."

So they come into a college situation where they are encouraged, expected, and tested-on-their-ability to "know stuff", and where, even if nobody ever taught them how to learn stuff before, they're actually going to be tested on that ability, and then they get a first-exam grade that's below passing, and all those fears come rushing back, and they think "Oh, shit--this is where I finally get found out. This is where They finally realize I'm actually dumb. This is where They tell me I can't do it anymore."

As their teachers, we just cannot let that happen. We have to walk that fine line of expecting the highest standards of ethics, effort, and execution--without letting them fall off the edge of failure that lies just on the other side of "Oh, I give up. I guess I'm too dumb." We cannot let that happen.

Honesty helps. A professor who stands up in class and says "I know--it really feels lousy to get back a bad grade. We don't think you're a bad person, just because you got a bad grade. We will help you, because that's our job" helps too. Just a professor who acknowledges what being graded, or trying and failing, feels like, provides--in my estimation--a huge sense of validation of the kid's own experience.

If as the professor you stand up, and make the point-of-departure of your post-mortem "yes, it feels lousy to get a bad grade", then the students are, in my observation and experience, infinitely more able to actually hear the second part of the statement, which is "and we can fix this." Then you can say "there are people in this room who've done none of the online assignments, who've blown off more classes than they've attended, who've been unprepared when they have attended" and point out the absurdity of those people thinking they could do anything but fail. And you can say, "the highest actual score was a 95, so we've added a plus-2-points curve: if you made an 88 or above, you get an A; 78 or above, a B" and so on.

And you can say, at the end of that speech, "OK, the grades have already been turned in. You can speak freely. How many people felt that what appeared on the exam, in content, range, and detail, was roughly what they expected?" And made 65% of the hands go up. "How many felt what appeared was at least in part not what they expected?" and about 25% of the hands go up (the final 10% are the ones who didn't even think about the exam in advance and don't know what they expected). And you can say, "OK, let's talk about that; tell what you did or didn't expect, so that together we can plan better for the next exam."

If as the professor you've done this right, if you've established enough of an atmosphere of honesty and trust, then some percentage of them will actually tell you, truthfully. And you can respond, honestly and non-defensively. You can acknowledge the reality that professors make errors and design bad questions ("Look, folks, if 71 out of 73 out of you tanked a certain question, I can promise you that I will presume it was a badly-written question"). And that is very very valuable, because the power relations in the classroom are so hopelessly unbalanced. It's bad enough that you have almost all the information, and nearly all the power, and the entire weight of the institution (particularly post-tenure) behind you; it's worse when a kid has done badly and thinks that all that information, power, and institutional weight is correct in saying "you're a dumb kid".

This can be avoided. You start by giving back some of the most fundamental power: the power to have an (informed) opinion and the freedom to express that opinion safely. We can't spend 3/4 of our time teaching them "generate an opinion; outgrow high-school; develop a thesis; think for yourself" and then, only at exam time, say "shut up, kid--our test strategy and design is impeccable, and a bad performance on an exam can only be your fault." It calls for a lot of confidence, and a willingness to engage with some contrary or resentful opinion in the post-mortem (as one of our Tibetan teachers said, "You have to dare to be disliked"), but if you do it successfully, you have created an infinitely more open, honest, fair, constructive, and emotionally mature space.

And that's where the teaching happens.

---
Below the jump: swingin' south sunrise on the springtime South Plains.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fell off the radar

Blogger was bloggered and I ran out of time. Will resume tomorrow.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Day 29 "In the trenches" (Back in the Saddle Again edition)

Back where we started...
Here we go 'round again.
Day after day I get up and say
I better Do It Again

[from the great Ray Davies]

'Cause this is what we do. TMEA is 24 hours over and it's time to get everybody (but mostly and 'specially the kiddos) back in the saddle--back in the head of realizing that they have a full-time day job, some of them for the first time ever, and that that job is not socializing, or making contacts, or making sure they get seen at the cool parties, or develop washboard abs so they can hook up on Spring Break (every year, the Student Rec Center is a madhouse from Jan 15 to March 15, as they try to do exactly that), or build elaborate facebook sites.

The job is to maximize the return on the investment of time (their own, minimally) and money (someone else's usually) that is a four-year college education. This is infinitely easier to do with most of our Music students, as opposed to the general population. Because the music kids, most of them, ever since junior high school, have had to work 2-5 hours/day, in addition to whatever studying for other courses, at a trade. And in music, as in few other college subjects, you can't skimp the time, because that skimped time shows up in the teacher's studio. The closest analog to the kind of self-discipline most high-school music students develop is that developed by high-school athletes, but with two crucial differences:

typically, high-school athletes have massive, extensive, and very attentive adult support staffs and infrastructures, specifically designed to guarantee that they make the minimal 2.5 GPA that keeps them on the team and scoring the touchdowns that make the boosters happy and keep the coaches employed and keep buying the plane tickets and bus rentals and uniforms and state-of-the-art football stadia--so there's almost no way for a high-performing high-school athlete to do poorly academically (music students have to do this on their own, without the adult minders),

except

that, typically, high-school athletes are treated with a level of toxic adulation that is almost guaranteed to turn them into walking pillars of egomania before they're eighteen. High-school athletes, make no mistake, work their asses off, and often get their asses kicked, and play in pain, and forgo a lot--but at the same time, the huge amounts of cash and prestige to be earned through high-school athletics mean that those same players are, typically, exempted from going through most of the experiences that actually turn adolescents into adults: taking responsibility, earning a living, balancing a checkbook, being "unpopular" (a bullshit chimera if ever there was one), trying to define their own future plans. H.C. Bissinger's masterful Friday Night Lights is still the best treatment of the bizarre distortion and (too frequent) disappointment post-high-school to which these athletes are subjected. It's not their fault that they become walking pillars of egomania--who, subjected to this level of adolescent adulation, wouldn't grab it with both hands?

It's different with the music kids. Typically, they were not the most popular ones in high-school--what camaraderie they had, crucially, was with the other "band geeks" or choir kids or orchestra types--and they had to go through those excruciating experiences of outsiderness, self re-definition, or questioning-of-the-future that actually grow us all up and turn us into functional adults. The music kids--more than a large percentage of the general undergraduate population--already understand about effort, and discipline, and hard work, and delayed gratification in service of something bigger, more distant, or more ultimately satisfying.

Our kids showed that this week: they fuckin' ruled TMEA. Band, chorus, orchestra, chamber and studio groups, Children's Chorus, they ruled. Not only the Lubbotians, but many many other people, commented on the high visibility of the Lubbock people. I was proud of them.

Below: the magnificent video for Ray's equally magnificent song, which manages to use the London Tube as a link between yesterday and today; busking, Blackpool, and the Blitz; cowboys and commedia dell'arte. Ray's vision of what England someday could be is like Hunter Thompson's of America: "a testimonial to the greatest impulses of the human spirit, if it could be kept out of the hands of greasy little hustlers" like Tony Blair or pearls-and-twinset Nazis like Margaret Thatcher.



Below the jump: His Highness, curled up on the dirty laundry that just came out of the travel bags (pretty endearing, that), giving his best Darth Vader impersonation:


Saturday, February 16, 2008

Day 28 "In the trenches" (jiggity-jig edition)

Home today. One last breakfast with old Indiana friends (after massive sushi-and-sochu feast last night), check out of hotel, twiddle our thumbs at airport until mid-afternoon flight.

Our Uni Symphony absolutely smoked last night (Strauss Don Juan and Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition); our University Choir had been featured in a workshop earlier in the day, along with multiple other Lubbock groups. These performances at TMEA were the culmination for both groups of their short spring "tours" (does it count as a tour if it only takes 3 days?), giving clinics and short informational sampler performances at various high schools in various metroplexes: Dallas, Houston, San Antonio. These tours, like the performances at TMEA itself, wind up costing us a lot of money (the number I heard bandied about, just for the TMEA stuff, exclusive of the other shows, was $100K), but they are essential: Not all, but a good chunk, of our incoming student population comes from Dallas & Houston, and to a lesser extent from Oklahoma City, Albuquerque, and similar cities on about a 6-hour radius. Those large-city kids, with the addition of the west-of-I-35 kids from the small towns of West Texas, represent most of our intake. And maintaining and expanding that intake from those cities is an essential part of our continuing recruitment. So the orchestras and choirs (and to a lesser extent the jazz bands and my own little Celtic band) go out on these tours because it's a way of maintaining or raising our profile in those communities from which most of our students come.

Maintaining and raising the profile is also the point of the (ultimately very costly) performances at TMEA: we had clinics, master-classes, lecture-demo's, panel discussions, workshop performances, and major performances by various groups from our Uni--all of it aimed at those high-school kids from Bandera and Harlingen and Abilene and Tulia and Dallas-Fort Worth and Cedar Oaks and all those other Texas towns who are here to sing or play, and run around on the Riverwalk, and maybe--belatedly--think about where they might want to go to college for music.

For me, a panel-discussion and three clinics in 2 days. I chaired the panel, led one of the clinics, and was host/presider for two others. By the end of the day yesterday, my voice was shot: the organization does not choose to supply any kind of sound-reinforcement in the cavernous lobby where the "lecture-demo's" are held, and so you either TALK VERY LOUDLY or deliver the thing as mime. I opted for the former, which is why my voice is shot today.

But, the boss, and the assistant-dean boss, and various other muckey-mucks were present, and they saw us (me, and my guys from the Celtic Ensemble, and a raft of undergrads who I knew from Lubbock and could summarily press-gang into participation) take over that whole space--all 5000-square-feet of it. Taught 'em the Siege of Ennis (Irish ceili dance) and a Breton an-dro (line dance); I'm no dance teacher, but if the alternative is both inaudible and stationary, I'll pinch-hit as one.

100 years ago, the street-corner-speakers of the IWW (the Wobblies of blessed memory) made a specialty of that kind of rabble-rousing top-of-the-voice outdoor oratory. They even developed the ability to deliver an entire stump-speech espousing the One Big Union in under 90 seconds, so as to remain within the time constraints the Draconian public-assembly laws of the period permitted. There are still just one or two audio recordings of those guys around, and the power, volume, speed, clarity, and adrenaline-pumping visceral rush of their public speaking is still there (the great Bruce "U. Utah" Phillips, Wobbly singer and historian, is one of the few remaining exponents).

Anymore, in George W Bush's incipient police state, there's something really transgressive about that kind of top-of-the-lungs vocal power in a public space. People don't expect it, and when you blast out "LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS, THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR BEING HERE!" it surely shocks them (you can see people jump, flinch, and double-take) but it also energizes them: their body language changes, their spines relax, their faces brighten, and they start grinning. At that point, you've got 'em--the job is to hold 'em. If you can make enough noise, and generate enough sonic and visual energy so that people across the gulf can hear and see you, you can take over that whole room, such that everybody in the space gets sucked in.

We did it: my Celtic Ensemble guys and my band-and-choir-disciplined undergrads were game, up for it and in there punching, and by the end of 40 minutes, we had around 20 people up and dancing. By the end of the hour, when we closed with the dead-simple left-right-left RIGHT of the Breton an-dro, we had a line of about 60, led by my stalwart assistant Kim, dancing in a huge circle that virtually encompassed the whole room.

And that was pretty cool, because it meant that not only sonically and visually, but also physically, we turned that whole room into one giant fest-noz dance party--when there's a line of folks, all ages, shapes, and sizes, dancing directly through the crowd (left-right-left RIGHT), the boundary between performers and audience, between participants and observers, and between Us and Them, is pretty much gone. And as I was weaving through the crowd, playing bouzouki and backing up so that both the accompanying musicians and the dancers could hear me (100 feet between them and it's pretty easy for the tempo to drift), I was watching the surrounding faces, and the laughter of the dancers, and the applause and grins of the surrounding crowd, and thinking of those battle-scarred and callous-knuckled old Wobblies on the Seattle docks and in the Anaconda Copper Country and the hobo jungles and the turpentine and lumber camps of the last century, and I was still thinking, "yes, we ARE 'building a new society within the shell of the old'."

Even if it's too late.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Day 27 "In the trenches" (keep-on-keepin'-on edition)

Day 3 (second full day) of TMEA. "Lecture-demo's" (loosely and inaccurately so-termed) #3 and #4 today. With the sod's-law coincidence that usually obtains in these kinds of situations, I was scheduled to present a workshop with the Celtic Ensemble, at precisely the same hour that about five of them are stuck in the major rehearsal with our Symphony Orchestra. Nobody's fault, but problematic nevertheless. So I've beaten the bushes for ringers and I expect I'll have enough bodies for a critical mass--but the scheduling, and the space, certainly tweeze the nature of what we can try to do.

In past years I've attempted to teach a "slow session"--tune-learning session--but that's a relatively small, static, and quiet activity: doesn't really sell to the wandering swag-toting multitudes. This year I'm cutting right to the chase, and using a presentational method that works better for this venue: we'll have a few of my players to hold down the tunes, and I'll just teach a couple of dance steps. These have the merit of being both highly visual/visible across the room, and of generating audience participation.

One of the nice things about Texas is that, with the ubiquity of the two-step, almost everybody has learned to dance at least that much. This has two benefits: the youngsters are way less shy about dancing than they were in the uptight Northeast or Midwest, and they're also bodily much more familiar with the process of learning. I was shocked, the first time we took kiddos to Ireland on a seminar fieldtrip, at the extent to and the willingness with which they got stuck-in at the Ennis ceilis. Hoping to generate something of the same enthusiasm today--we'll see.

Later: Waiting in the massively crowded lobby with the rest of the swag-seeking hordes who want in to the exhibit hall. It's not quite so enticing for us, as, in the literal acres of goods 'n' services, amidst the band uniforms and ornamental swords and entire soundproofed practice-room modules and hundreds of cubic yards of sheet music for band, chorus and orchestra--there's actually comparatively little space for the stuff we do. Ain't much in the way of vielles or uilleann bagpipes. Which is actually a good thing, because it means that we can cut out of the exhibits and head back to the hotel, before sallying forth again for another clinic and dinner with friends.

Later later:

Ran out of steam. Two clinics (including a hair-raising screeching-around-the-curves taxi ride for Dharmonia to pick up an errant bouzouki), sit in on colleague's viola workshop, massive sushi dinner with old Altramar friends, back to college reunion where you hear how all the kids from the past seven years are doing in their first or second or third teaching gigs, hoick back to the hotel once again. We're pooped.

Home tomorrow.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Day 26 "In the trenches" (Go-time edition)

Day 2 (first full day) of TMEA. This morning at 10:30am brings our round-table discussion (on "Approaches to World Music Pedagogy") and then 12:00noon the first of our workshops/lecture - demonstrations: on "World" (specifically Ghanaian/Ewe) percussion.

Those lecture-demos are a little different in actuality than they might seem based on their terminology. When I think "lecture-demo" or "workshop", I presume a space, and an audience, of a sufficiently limited size that the audience can actually hear the "lecture" part. That's not the case here. Here, the "lecture-demo" takes place in an enormous convention-center lobby, behind the velvet ropes, swimming out there in the vastness of the lobby's floorspace like a satellite, with hundreds upon hundreds of badge-wearing, swag-toting conventioneers wandering past. There's no stage, no lights, usually not even any microphones.

So anything you intend to present had better have a strongly visual component, and/or be so self-contained that you can amuse yourself even in the absence of any attention from the wandering multitudes. For a competent musician / performer, that's actually not so hard to do--provided you know it's coming. You leave the Mozart sonata at home and teach them to dance a minuet, or (in my case) leave the sean-nos songs and the harp tunes at home, and teach them the Irish 3's and 7's ("and-one-two-three, and-one-two-three, and-one-two-three-four-five-six-seven") and a Breton an-dro avec klem ("left-right-left right, left-right-left-right"), and you be a shameless carnival-barker about hoicking-in anyone who even slows down as they wander past.

Update, 1:13CST: two out of four presentations--50% of the total--out of the way. 9:30am was “Living in the Whole World of Music: Pedagogical Approaches to Global Musical Styles”, a round-table presentation/panel with two other colleagues: one a percussionist and ensemble director at a small, high-quality denominational college midway between Somewhere and Nowhere, and a specialist in Ghanaian Anlo/Ewe drumming; and a high-school jazz band and mariachi director from down near the border. Both great folks, knowledgeable, authoritative, and still easy-going--best moment: when the jazz/mariachi fella said "Well, I always dreamed about getting into the NBA, and now I can say I almost did (the Ghanaian guy is about 6'8" and I'm 6'5").

The key in presentations like this, for audiences like those at this convention, is to, on the one hand, present the idioms in a sufficiently-accessible fashion that the K-12 music specialists aren't scared away from trying to incorporate them, and, on the other, to avoid "dumbing them down." Really, in these cases, it's not so much that you risk over-simplifying, but rather that, because K-12 specialists are required to be so colossally results-oriented (there's that competition and teaching-to-the-test syndrome rearing its head again), they're sometimes afraid to employ the traditional pedagogies. It's not so much that they don't trust those pedagogies--though the word "trust" was certainly a key component of my own presentation--but that they don't "trust" that their kids, inured as they are to learning by staring at notation, can learn something by ear and imitation.

The irony here is that most secondary-school kids in Texas do learn most of their music by rote--by ear and imitation. One of the problems that arises with many of our incoming freshmen is that, though throughout high school they've spent anywhere between 3 and 5 hours/day sitting in ensemble (with bands, choruses, orchestras, jazz bands, and--often--chamber groups in almost every high school), sitting in ensemble is basically all they've done. That is, with 3-5 hours/day, five days a week, of rehearsal, kids don't really have to learn to sight-read, because they may take five weeks of ensemble rehearsal to learn a specific piece. In five weeks of daily rehearsals, a kid is going to learn a piece by rote--hell, just by saturation--even if s/he can't read a note.

What they don't tend to do is learn to read at sight, or to hear very well (if they're learning by rote, they don't have to be able to look at a C-G and "hear" that P5 interval in the mind's ear), or to teach themselves. They learn to sit in ensemble, to hear something over and over again, and to gradually memorize it by ear.

Which, ironically, is not so different from what a number of these world traditions also expect them to do: to sit in ensemble, playing a very simple part by ear, and gradually learn to "relax into" the part and be able to split their concentration to hear all the other parts interacting. It's why the relatively small number of pieces they learn in high school are nevertheless learned very well--and often as multiple parts. In such a situation, a K-12 music specialist's conviction that his/her kids "can't" learn a part by observation and imitation is really rather ill-founded--the specialist may idealize a situation in which his/her kids sit down and sight-read through a new band or orchestra piece, but that is not the reality of the way that most high-school ensembles operate. Rather, they take lots and lots of daily rehearsal time to, essentially, learn by rote. The main thing we're adding to--or subtracting from--the mix is the premise that there has to be written notation in front of them during this rote process.

It would be nice to persuade the K-12 specialists that their kids already know how to learn by ear. That's really what today's presentation was about. Ironically, I ended my closing speech by quoting myself (after the mariachi specialist had quoted myself back to me), and then extrapolating. I cited an article I had written entitled "Trusting the tradition...", and closed by saying, "we can trust the tradition. We can trust not only the beauty of the music but also the efficacy of its own indigenous pedagogy. We have to trust our, and our students', ability to learn in the traditional fashion.

"And, what that really means, is that, as educators and musicians, we have to trust ourselves."

Side-note: you realize that seven years have passed at your current job when, while sitting blogging, you're greeted by students you had as freshmen who are now two or three years into high-school music education gigs. Make you feel not only veteran...but old!

More later.

[Second update]: Dharmonia finishes her gig singing a pilgrim song from the Llibre Vermell with our colleague's West Texas Children's Chorus (best line from one of the kiddos: "but this is song is so boring...it's the same thing over and over," to which our colleague shot back "it's a pilgrim's song; that means it's supposed to pass the time, right?"), and we swiftly split for the Riverwalk and Boudro's made-by-your-table guacamole. We ate here yesterday, we're eating here today. We may even eat here tomorrow.

Update via text message from my grad students, chairing panels in my absence at this conference in ABQ. All goes well, which is no surprise: they're smart, tough, imaginative, quick-on-their-feet young women (best line, about a panelist who obviously "didn't get the memo" about a 20-minute limit, "well, we basically had to pick her up and throw her against the wall to get her to quit talking"). The real surprise is that I was able to figure out, not only how to receive a text message, but even to send one.

Then back to the hotel for a nap--still, one of the best parts of any conference trip: the chance to sleep.

More, still later.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Day 25 "In the trenches" (On the Road Again edition)

En route to San Antonio for the gathering of the tribes. Will try to blog or live-blog the conference as we go. You know it's TMEA weekend when you run into 3 different colleagues in the airport security line--and thank God! again for a small regional airport where it takes 12 minutes to check in and clear security--and 2 different graduate students who ask if you'll be free in SA for short conferences. Actually, we're at a point now where traveling, except for the ever-present stress of trying to get bulky and fragile musical instruments past TSA and airline watchdogs, is actually relaxing--where you can sit on an airplane and read for an hour, or in a hotel room where only people to whom you've given your cell number can find you. I expect to be reasonably bored with the majority of TMEA hour-by-hour stuff--because the convention and its vast merchandise displays are primarily geared toward K-12 educators--but I'm relishing the opportunity to get out of town for a trip where I don't have to play a gig. I like playing gigs, but for the kind of stuff that we do, it's not really just "show up, do sound check, play 3 hours, split for the after-party." For us, usually, we're "on-stage" (with donors, hosts, students, administrators, or whoever else is entitled to a piece of our time) pretty much from when we land to when we take off.

This is different, and welcome.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Day 24 "In the trenches" (sayanora edition)

In about 16 hours we leave for San Antonio, where I'll be chairing a panel discussion on teaching world music to various grade levels (K-12, college), involving teachers from around the state. I was asked to organize this panel--and the slate of 3 lecture-demonstrations that follow it--as an attempt to jump-start discussion, collaboration, and general representation of global idioms at this convention. Particularly important because, with the Texans' band-choir-orchestra bias in secondary education, other options (chamber music, music theory, composition, music history, world music) don't get much representation at that level, either at the convention, or in the curricula of the music specialists around the state who have to conform to Junior's asinine (and dishonest) "No Child Left Behind" Big Lie. Texans are rabid for testing, because that reflects competition, and all competition is seen through the approving lens of football--they even turn one-act plays into a state-wide competition. So, many of the messages that I believe world music has to teach (cooperate, listen, pay attention, find a way to fit in, respect that which is different from you and yours) are rather alien to the K-12 population--or at least, the Grades 7-12 population. Puberty hits, and cooperation goes out the window--and they don't develop much, cognitively, between age 12 and age 19. Hence, competition is still the model when the Texas kids hit college.

I think that's one reason that marching band is so big--not just with the boosters, but even more (and more passionately and idealistically) with the kids themselves: the "band rats" for whom marching band represents a chance to be part of something bigger than themselves, and which generates rabid support from boosters, parents, coaches, and state administrators, but in which cooperation and self-sacrifice is visibly, tangibly valued. It's not dissimilar to the football team itself, in those respects...but where it does differ is that, even in the half-time shows and the summer drum corps competitions, it's about creating something that is beautiful. Football can demand guts, strength, courage, stamina, mental and physical discipline--and sometimes heartbreak--but music, even marching band music, is prettier to hear and see, and it reaches further back into our DNA.

The problem with the band-choir-orchestra K-12 triumvirate is that it is limiting, and tends to be unimaginative. The boosters and the parents want to hear stuff programmed that gives their lil' darlings the chance to defeat opposing "teams;" the conductors and programmers want pieces that are either sure-fire evergreens or instantaneously-crowd-pleasing novelties, the kids spend most of their music-experience time sitting in ensembles learning by rote (and thus never learning to read or hear music with much precision) and come to college thinking that a music degree will mostly consist of more sitting in ensembles learning by rote, and--in general--there is a celebration and a fetishization of the familiar: familiar repertoire, familiar half-time shows, familiar programming, familiar stage-dynamics, familiar style-characteristics, etc. It tends to close them down to the marvelous, exhilarating experience of hearing something you've never heard something before, and thinking, "I don't know what the hell that is, but I want to make that noise." Acknowledging that you don't know something, are not familiar with something, don't know how something works, and that therefore the world is a much bigger place than you imagined, is a wonderful--but for these kids, unfamiliar--experience.

This is precisely the experience that encountering the myriad beautiful, complex, sophisticated, individual, and experientially distinct idioms of the world's peoples can provide. A lot of these kids have been programmed by parents', ministers', or coaches' preference for teaching "small-town values", no matter where the kids are being raised or where their lives might eventually take them. "Small-town values" are fine when they encompass "close any gate you go through," or "don't let your cows stray into your neighbor's field," or "check on the old lady across the street because she hasn't taken her milk in for two days,"--but more commonly, such "values" are actually code for "distrust people different than you," "don't develop an independent streak or a desire to question your elders' values or life choices," or "don't think that just because you're getting a college education your opinions are more valid than those of people who never read."

The K-12 music specialists know this, and by-and-large are willing to perform the (heartbreaking, I'm sure) task of walking the line between standardized testing's moronic lockstep, parents' insistence upon seeing the $$-value-added to every activity or financial outlay, and school boards' cowardly pandering to their perceived base (it's remarkable how ready school boards are to knuckle under to the noisy intolerant few, rather than standing up for the much greater tolerance and inclusivity of the quieter parental many). But, if you're a K-12 music specialist and you're already working 50-55 hours/week preparing and presenting materials for the classroom, you hardly have time to invent a world-music curriculum if you're not already knowledgeable in one of those idioms. And it's almost impossible to get the release time to learn such skills and develop such curricula if your superintendent, school board, or PTA don't recognize the value to youngsters of experiencing the artistic unfamiliar.

That's where we come in. If we're going to even attempt to fulfill the obligations of the public arts intellectual, then we have to help the teachers with materials, procedures and inspiration; provide superintendents and school boards the perspectives, rhetoric, and "intellectual legitimacy" (hah!) of teaching these musics K-12; and fire the imagination of the parents who, if they're on our side, can demand of the infrastructure that they find space and monies for these musics. We have to teach--but we also have to lead and inspire.

If we do this--if we begin to raise generations who recognize that that which is different, unfamiliar, challenging, or demanding is valuable, that it makes us richer as human beings--then we begin to raise generations who can in turn rise to challenges: of a bigger, more complex, more complicated, more challenging world. And can have the courage, the imagination, and the curiosity to begin to repair it.

That's why what we do matters.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Day 23 "In the trenches" (grinding-ivory edition)

Ran out of time with the day. Exam today in undergrad class, followed by dentist. More tomorrow.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

"Estrogen makes you crazy & testosterone makes you stupid"

Can't recall where I first heard the above, but the following cartoon (from Jan Eliot's very canny Stone Soup) nails my own personal theory that the primary development between ages 14-21 is physical--not cognitive. The young lady depicted pretty much articulates the (classically inarticulate) perspective of an awful lot of faux-jaded, faux-sophisticated, big-sunglassed, SUV - driving - text-messaging types in our general education undergraduate classes:

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Jason Linkins is my hero

Over at the Huffington Post, Jason Linkins throws down on Chris "Kneepads" Wallace's visit to Camp David and intimate tete-a-tete with BFF George W. Linkins's best line:

[Shrub:] "If you're looking for perfection you'll never find it. I wasn't a perfect president!" I think a lot of people would say Bush did achieve a near-perfect rating in the category of craptasticness.
History gonna be your judge, Junior.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

"The Office" (workstation series) 091 (peripatetic edition)

Trying to get all the final ducks in a row before 'most everybody goes about of town in the second half of next week. That means, over the next two days, the following needs to happen:

write and record a radio program: I'm two weeks ahead of broadcast date and am bound and determined to stay that way--it's nice to have a cushion of programs in the can;

meet with two graduate students who are going to chair two panels at this conference in ABQ, while I'm in San Antonio; make sure they've got both logistics and strategy for running their panels and dealing with certain endemic organization and/or behavioral inevitabilities;

do at least a few hours work on the minstrelsy project (see below);

teach the Irish music slow session--I started it seven years ago, and pretty-much grew a community of players, who basically made the great session last night possible;

stay the fuck home
and practice (evening)--Netflix just brought a documentary on Zappa's Apostrophe/Overnite Sensation, so I'll probably watch that and play right-hand exercises

haul my Cuban tres out of mothballs, restring, remember how to play it, learn a tune, rehearse tune Sunday afternoon with a doctoral student's Afro-Cuban folkloric ensemble;

jump-start sectional rehearsal with a couple of my percussionists, who are great players, but have to learn a new style (English Country Dance) for the April concert;

rehearse Celtic Ensemble Sunday evening: at the very least, check in on all the individual songs and their first arranging choices; this will also be the first time the brass section will be attending, so it's likely to be challenging, long, and (hopefully) exciting;

for Monday: prep for #3 and #4 phone interviews for our divisional search;

deliver undergrad exam Monday, maintain test security, get 'em graded, get grades posted.

Feels like a lot.

----------------
Now playing: Zappa - 05 05 05. Village Of The Sun

Friday, February 08, 2008

Day 22 "In the trenches" (viral-video edition)

Friday--meetings, guest lecture, a bunch of administrativa. Dharmonia still out of town, but there's a pub session tonight, which I look forward to: it's a risk ever seeking to predict when a session will be good or not, as it's unpredictable and misleading, but some nights you know that you're looking forward to seeing your friends and having some tunes.

Next weekend is the huge gathering-of-the-tribes for Texas music educators in San Antonio--simultaneous with the conference in Albuquerque where I usually chair panels but have this year deputized a couple of trusted grad students. Need to make sure both my ABQ and SA panels are workable, in place, and have what they need.

But also, because I'll be out of town next weekend, this weekend has to be at least a jump-start on some of our new marketing initiatives for the Research Center. Our Uni has an iTunes University portal (spot on iTunes where universities participating can upload free content, whether pedagogical, informational, or promotional, or a combination of all three) and is launching a YouTube site. Likewise, there are a million different ways that similar content (audio and video podcasts, slideshows, etc) can be hosted and employed for purposes of student recruitment. Such recruitment is always a high priority for any Music program, and any new (and cheap) marketing modes we can discover are valuable and welcomed. As is often the case, the Marketing and Technology folks on this campus are very positive about the initiative, and have put all the necessary mechanisms in place--but they can't produce the content, that's not their role.

On the other, we over in Music (and Theater, and Dance, and Art) produce content all day long: every performance, every rehearsal, to say nothing of the master-classes, lectures, and private lessons. So the bottleneck is to find some way of turning that raw content (played or presented live, for live audiences, and then disappearing into the ether) into a material object, or at least bits and bytes, that can be reproduced, shared, uploaded, posted, streamed, archived, and generally "viral'd" out there into the Web. We're working on a pilot production right now, "Voices of the Research Center," aimed at matriculating high-school juniors and seniors who are looking for college programs.

So we go out to the students who are currently members of our various programs (Bachelor of Arts with Traditional Music concentration), the Master's Ethno and Musicology candidates, the Ph.D. Fine Arts (Musicology) candidates, and we put them in front of the camera. Prospective candidates don't need to see me pontificate--maybe a voice-over, or a friendly "there's a place here for you, too!" message--but rather, they need to see young people about whom the candidate could say "hey, they're like me! I could do that!" Young people shopping for a college situation don't want to be told "Hey, kid, here's what you should do with your life"; rather, they want to be shown "Hey, there's somebody doing something with her life that I could imagine doing with mine."

So we got three of our MUBA students (Irish fiddle, Irish fiddle/medieval music, hand-drumming) into my office, and turned on the cameras, and said "tell us what brought you here and what keeps you here." And responses were, for me, tremendously moving:

Because I remember eight years ago, right around this time, completing the application materials for this gig, one of which was the (commonly-requested) Statement of Purpose. But in this particular version, it asked me to address, in addition to more immediate teaching and research goals, a five- or ten-year plan for research. As I wasn't convinced I wanted the gig at all (or rather, I wanted the gig, but in a way more salubrious place), I figured I might as well shoot-the-moon and actually tell them what I wanted. So, as part of that five- (or eight-, or ten-, or whatever the hell it was) year plan, I said that I wanted to be the director of a research institute dedicated to study, teaching, and advocacy on behalf of the world's vernacular musics.

I figured "what the hell?" I didn't think it would actually happen, or that the idea would resonate with the powers-that-be, but--just as I wore the earrings and the long hair to the interview, and talked about vernacular music, and improvisation, and wanting to continue to be a player and recording artist even after I took an academic gig--I couldn't see the point of trying to blow smoke.

The end result was that I was shocked, during my meeting with the search committee, and again with the School's Director, when both parties asked me "so what about this Vernacular Music Center? It sounds like a really interesting idea--tell us more." So I pretty much pulled a description out of my ass: talked about advocacy, and the high art and practical social value of learning about other cultures' musics, and my conviction that studying, playing, and teaching these musics could all exist under one roof. And in both situations, the people on the other side of the desk said "that sounds like a great idea; how can we help you go forward with that?"

And then when they hired me, they said "start putting 'Vernacular Music Center' on every project or initiative you undertake that you think can qualify. Build a paper trail." So each year, whatever the event (big or little, complex or off-the-cuff), I'd either say or print "A production of the Vernacular Music Center."

And at the third-year review, they said "how can we help you do more with the VMC? There's almost no money, but you managed to make this Celtic Christmas work. Can you add a concert series?" And in the fourth year they said "We have this Bachelor of Arts degree that kind of falls between two stools--do you want to be the adviser?"

And I started talking with undergraduate students who wanted to be double-majors, or wanted to start studying as music history majors at the undergraduate level, or who wanted to study a music that didn't fall under the rubric of the typical conservatory's classical/jazz dichotomy. And I went to the then-undergraduate director, and said, "Is there any reason that we can't use the flexibility of this degree to let somebody study a vernacular music tradition?" And she, bless her heart and brains (doctorate in percussion and a steel-pan specialist), said "nope, there's no reason we can't do that."

Four years later we've got a whole class of undergrad MUBA's specializing in world traditions, and the first one, Taiyo, who blazed the trail for all of them, is graduating and heading off to a Master's program in medieval studies.

It's remarkable, and I can't really recall just how it happened (and I damned sure didn't envision this as a cogent plan--more just some long-term goals and some general cross-country orienteering toward those goals), but eight years after those initial pull-'em-out-of-my-ass brainstorms, we're graduating 4-year undergrad BA's who specialize in Irish fiddle.

I was proud of, and touched by, the eloquence with which those young women spoke about the meaning to them of what we do here.

Below the jump: His Highness stalking--and then streaking--toward the back door.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Indictments, baby

It shouldn't end in January 09:

The next President will have the authority to declassify and disclose any and all records that reflect the activities of executive branch agencies. Although internal White House records that document the activities of the outgoing President and his personal advisers will be exempt from disclosure for a dozen years or so, every Bush Administration decision that was actually translated into policy will have left a documentary trail in one or more of the agencies, and all such records could be disclosed at the discretion of the next President.

A new President may find it advantageous to quickly distinguish himself (or herself) from the current Administration and its policies.
I bet there's a lot of money being salted away in legal-defense funds right about now..

Day 21 "In the trenches" (rollin-them-bones edition)

Rollin' them bones today--booked straight, but for some reason it doesn't feel quite so arduous. Got a little bit of a second-wind deal goin' on here.

Dharmonia leaves for a flying dharma weekend in a couple of hours. Historically, those weekends of her absence are usually pretty low-profile for me: do the gigs, work at home, make early nights of it. I am told by behaviorists that the way to tell the difference between an introvert and an extrovert is not on the basis of whether the person in question avoids people or is sociable: introverts can be outgoing and extroverts quiet, etc--but rather on the basis of how that person by preference recharges mentally and emotionally: alone or in company with others.

On that basis--and contrary to what the undergraduates who fear I'll "eat their soul" (actual quote) when I loom over them might think--I'm an introvert: when the gig's over and the wife is out of town, I'd rather go home, feed His Highness, cook for myself, and be quiet. My life is so jammed-full of input that the opportunity to simply not talk is pretty welcome.

The Dearly Deported out of town for PhD interviews, which means I take the doo-wop lecture in the 410-student Rock History class. This will be both welcome and a challenge--he's got a great crew of student assistants, to whom he's assigned the rotated roles of "Technology" (running smart-classroom podium: DVDs, Powerpoints, etc) "video-recorder" (roaming camera shooting digital video for upcoming podcasts and online teaching), and "bouncer" (general security, student attention and focus, and floggings-as-requisite--Quantzalcoatl's construction). On the other hand, I know pretty much fuck-all about doo-wop, can't teach the lecture off the top of my head, and so will need to actually prepare. Taking a leaf out of Zappa's audience-participation experiments, I'm thinking of dividing the whole 410-person lecture hall into 3 parts and having them sing doo-wop in sections--we'll see if that flies.

DD asked for some feedback re/ those interviews, and here, suitably redacted, are my bootlegged comments. I think these are not bad psychological advice for anybody in any kind of search/interview situation:

  • Try to realize that, contrary to how it feels, it's a buyer's market, and you're the buyer: doctoral programs seek candidates who already know who they are as scholars and adult humans, and have a clear--but open and receptive-to-influence--research plan and set of goals. Realize that, with a clear sense of who you are as a scholar, you have something they need--not just vice versa. The "right fit" between candidate and situation is thus (or should be) a situation of mutual agreement and compatibility.
  • With this in mind, your goal thus becomes, not to sell them on you or to stand hat-in-hand saying "please let me into your program", but rather to convey, "here's what I have to offer to your program." It's not unlike my attitude interviewing for this job in 2000: my stance was "Jesus, if I'm going to even think about taking a job here hell-west of nowhere, I better be damned sure they understand how much of a hippie I am." Because there was no way I was going to take a job hell-west of nowhere, and ask Dharmonia to move there, if there were going to be unbearable constraints on who I was and what I wanted to accomplish (luckily, it worked out for us). Of course you don't want to cop an attitude, but you should let them know: "hey, I'm a working musician or otherwise functional human being with goals and avocations beyond being a drone, I will still be wanting to make gigs, I have a clear research identity and area of specialization and I'm looking for a place that values and rewards that, I have teaching experience and would like to put that to use here" etc.
  • Work hard to figure out which of the people you meet could work, in terms of research specialization but also personality type, as a dissertation supervisor. That person doesn't have to be expert in the topic you want to work on, but s/he has to (a) understand why you want to work on it--that is, why it's a valuable topic and (b) bring good mentoring, editorial, and academic-rigor skills to the table. Where you study or teach at the doctoral level matters one hell of a lot less than with whom you study or teach, and your degree of compatibility and collegiality with those specific persons.
  • Ask about assistantships, scholarships, fee waivers or reductions, and any/all other financial remuneration. Almost any college town will have a student-economy infrastructure (cheap housing, part-time work, etc): you can find affordable situations, but you still need to assess the local economy in order to understand whether (a) you can afford it and (b) whether you can afford it and still have enough time to go to school full-time. A graduate musicology/ethnomusicology program will demand 50 hours a week of studying/writing--make sure you can pay the rent while doing so.
Below the jump:

Clear though cold as hell out here, but the light's beautiful and, as I always (and thus tiresomely frequently) say, "My ancestors wouldn't even wear shoes." Over the weekend, Dharmonia, with a little weeny help from me, did the late-winter everything's-about-to-start-budding cleanup, and it makes the yards and beds look good--bare, but ready for new green.

Springtime comin'.